A week on US radio: stuck between stations

Fun-wise, it's been an unspectacular summer in New York

A week on US radio
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Fun-wise, it’s been an unspectacular summer in New York. “We are quietly snoring,” reports the New York Times, briefly enlivened by Beyoncé causing havoc at Coney Island by perfecting her make-up for an impromptu photo shoot on the 90-year-old Ferris wheel, and leaving a lone couple stranded for over half an hour 150 feet at the top, certain they had been forgotten for the night and forced to sit tearfully in their wind-rattled cage, gazing down on the wide and clamouring boardwalk below.
 
When immigrants approached New York by boat in the 19th century, it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty they saw first, but the one million electric lights of Coney Island – lights promising one thing: here, pleasure is a birthright. But not this summer. A numbing heatwave in June was followed by perpetual drizzle and brown-shadowed thunderstorms along the Jersey shore, knocking out power in the run-up to Labor Day.
 
“After the news, I wanna bring something up,” sighed Jim Gearhart, the veteran host of New Jersey 101.5, on yet another overcast morning. “Today’s the day that the burger flippers are supposed to go on strike. Has anybody in New Jersey heard about this?”
 
In New York, fast-food workers’ wages have increased just 25 cents in ten years to a parlous $7.25 (£4.67) an hour. The burger flippers of New Jersey – the most densely populated state in the Union, with tens of thousands working in that industry – earn marginally more, but still short of Barack Obama’s proposed $9 minimum wage. When recently McDonald’s sent out a sheet of contemptuous “suggestions” on how its workers might more sensibly live within a budget, it included an assumed “income from another job”, conceding that nobody can hope to survive by flipping cheeseburgers alone.
 
“Do you believe in the minimum wage or is it pushing even Karl Marx to the left?” muses Jim. “Let’s go to Joe in Neptune.” “Oh wow,” says a distracted Joe, forgetting what he wanted to say and hanging up. Jim sighs and leisurely goes to the ads for statins. It takes more than dead air (or even murder) to faze a New Jersey DJ.
 
Later that afternoon, on National Public Radio, it’s not Marx but Einstein up for discussion. Tom and Ray Magliozzi – brothers who nominally dole out advice about fixing cars on the station – affectionately mock a listener who has just emailed in on the subject of geniuses and called Albert Einstein “Norman”. “Hey– Norman Einstein!” shriek Tom and Ray, 76 and 64, respectively, but brimful with the dimply charm of fantastically unsnooty delinquents. “Hey, man!” they bang the table, hooting with a soul-deep satisfaction. “Ah, man . . .” It’s the most fun they’ve had since Memorial Day. “You been collaborating with Yogi Bear on this?”
A summer thunderstorm in New York. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.